Two of Alaska’s most prominent and popular indie music artists, Medium Build and Quinn Christopherson, will join Ilakus Iñupiaq Dance Group this weekend to play an Anchorage concert supporting a tribal school in Wainwright.
Qarġi Academy Tribal School, the only tribal school on the North Slope, provides students with an education grounded in the Iñupiaq culture, language and ways of being.
To spread the word about the school and help the facility cover the high costs of operations in the Arctic, the artists will play a show at the Discovery Theatre on Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at centertix.com.
“If you’re a fan of singer-songwriter shows and Alaska Native dancing, then, you know, this is a show for you,” said James Dommek Jr., concert organizer and marketing coordinator at Arctic Slope Community Foundation. “I know it’s different, but I feel that it’s going to be just really good.”
The idea for a fundraiser concert came naturally to Dommek. A drummer in Anchorage for the past 20 years, he knows how to put on a show. Dommek has played with both Medium Build and Quinn Christopherson before, so he invited the artists to join the cause and instantly received a solid yes.
“The fact that that school is wanting to re-teach the things that colonization has erased, to me, it just is so beautiful. It’s healing,” Medium Build’s Nick Carpenter said. “I just feel special to be able to be a part of it. If playing songs can do any sort of help or awareness — like if I can help sell tickets so people can find out about the school — that’s tight.”
Carpenter, who also recently traveled to Evansville in Interior Alaska to support the movement against the proposed Ambler Mining Road, said he has been becoming more aware of the impact he can have as a musician with a growing following.
“I’m starting to give in to the fact that I do have this little influence and I think it’s just because music is special. I don’t think I am special,” Carpenter said.
Music, he explained, is a universal language that makes it easier to connect to people and find common ground.
“When we were in Evansville, and we went and had a bonfire, we all sang songs, and Chief Frank (Evansville First Chief Frank Thompson), he’s like, ‘Oh man, I used to follow this band around,’ ” Carpenter said. “We share a love of music. We share a love of Alaska.”
Before Medium Build and Quinn Christopherson take the stage Friday, the show will open with the Ilakus Iñupiaq Dance Group, which is based in Southcentral Alaska but has roots in the North Slope, Dommek said.
“These songs are ancient, they’re older than Beethoven and Bach,” Dommek said about the traditional songs the dance group will perform. “You could feel the strength in them because they lasted as long.”
Carpenter said that having the dance group opening the show will be a privilege to him.
“Traditional dances are usually reserved for like potlatches and like ceremonies,” he said. “I just feel special to be able to be a part of it.”
Featuring traditional Iñupiaq dancing at the benefit for the tribal school felt like a logical yet unique step, Dommek said.
“I just feel like it’s a very, very Alaskan show,” he said. “It might be as Alaskan as you can get.”
Alaska bands such as Pamyua and Portugal. The Man were also a source of inspiration and encouragement for the idea, Dommek said. Pamyua has been playing what they call Inuit soul for two decades, and Portugal. The Man has invited local tribes to say land acknowledgments before their concerts. Both have received a positive reception from younger audiences, Dommek said.
“This crowd is open to Native sounds or Native ideas and Native people,” Dommek said. “They have space in their heart, they have space in their head.”
The Friday show will be a sit-down performance in a 700-seat auditorium. The intimate setting could amplify the emotional power of the singer-songwriters’ performances, Dommek said.
“When Nick and Quinn are up there singing their songs, doing their thing, I believe them. There’s just so much honesty. They sound the way they feel, and that’s kind of hard to do,” Dommek said. “I wanted to give them a chance to do their thing to a crowd that really appreciates them, that’ll give them ... the room to stretch out, to really open up and just really connect.”
Last week, at least a third of the tickets were sold, Dommek said. All proceeds from the concert will go toward maintaining the school, building the program and purchasing such supplies as furs, said Mark Roseberry, director of education at the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the parent organization for Qargi Academy.
Qarġi Academy, named after qarġi, the traditional meeting house for Iñupiat, was founded to provide education to the tribal members of the Inupiat Community of Arctic Slope and to find a balance between modern education and tradition, Roseberry said.
“We’re gonna provide education in a different way,” he said. “We want language, we want culture, we want school to resemble our local communities.”
The academy opened as an Iñupiaq charter school back in 2020 and became a tribal school in 2021. While the school is located in Wainwright, it also serves students in other North Slope villages, as well as ICAS tribal members in Anchorage. This year, 15 students are enrolled, and the number is steadily growing.
The pace of learning at the academy is flexible: Students can enroll in courses year-round, which makes it easier to combine education with the subsistence lifestyle, Roseberry said. In addition to focusing on academic success and cultural education, academy teachers also work with students on their discipline, social-emotional challenges and a sense of responsibility, Roseberry said.
“We are focused on the whole child, the whole person,” he said.
The idea behind the school resonates deeply with Dommek, who is Iñupiaq and grew up in Kotzebue hunting, fishing and picking berries with his family. He said that his generation saw the effects of boarding schools in their grandparents and now wants to make a difference by teaching youth Iñupiaq values and language.
“I don’t have to go into the stories about boarding school and all that. We are we know what happened,” he said. “We’re at a place where we say, ‘What if we could change that? What if we could make a difference for our future ancestors, by teaching them the Iñupaq ways, Iñupiaq values, speaking the language?’
“The real story underlying this whole thing is just about the reclamation of our education and taking it back,” he said, “having some self-reliance and self-governance on the way that we teach our children.”